Imagine if every time you had car trouble, a message came up on your phone that said what was wrong and how much it would cost to fix.
Now, imagine if through the same technology, you could tell how your aging, out-of-state mother’s car was performing or how and where your teenage son was driving his car.
Finally, imagine if all that data could be shared between people and insurance companies and used car dealerships with a few touchscreen jabs and swipes, or then allowing instant insight into a car’s past and even its future.
That’s the brave new world a Sullivan’s Island man has in mind, and his company is now on the cusp of rolling out its “connected car” product.
It’s called Zubie, and it’s an on-board diagnostic plug-in (like the ones mechanics use to translate your “Check Engine” light) complete with wireless, accelerometer and global-positioning system chips.
It’s at once highly intriguing and a little scary.
“Once you plug it in, you’ll never know it’s there,” said Tim Kelly, the local CEO.
Zubie started at Best Buy last year as GreenLight Connectivity Solutions. But the big-box store’s wireless partners saw it as competition, according to Kelly, so Best Buy ceded majority control to a Kansas City venture capital group that injected some $5 million into the business.
Open Air Partners, cofounded by former Sprint executive Ron LeMay, in turn hired Kelly, another former Sprint executive, as a consultant late last year and made him chief executive officer in March.
Kelly, a 54-year-old father of five, liked what the GreenLight team had developed but thought the product’s focus — to create usage-based insurance information — was unnecessarily narrow, a “me, too, solution” given what insurers like Progressive already offer policyholders.
He said to “allow the customer to control that information ... seemed like a lot smarter way to go.
“That’s what we kind of saw in the business,” he said. “A bigger opportunity ... more for the long haul.”
This spring, Kelly has since supplemented the existing Minneapolis-based employees with a handful of former colleagues from Sprint and other businesses.
They changed the name of the company. Zubie is more memorable, fun and search-engine friendly, and UBI stands for usage-based insurance in the industry, Kelly explained.
And off they went.
The device is “fully developed” and has been in use on a trial basis via a web portal for almost a year, Kelly said. “But the market-ready product requires that we have the app, so we deliver the right experience,” he added.
The app for Apple’s iPhone is scheduled to come out this month and a version for Android-run mobile devices is due by the end of September.
On a recent morning, Kelly and Mark Angelino, another former Sprint executive who is now Zubie’s senior vice president for channel operations, sat in a conference room at their temporary offices a few doors down from the barrier island’s restaurant strip.
They were talking to potential investors, something that consumes much of their time these days. They believe they’ve got a good thing. Now, they just need to make it and sell it.
“We’ve got a huge market, very low penetration, no one’s really solved for the end user, and we’re trying to run there first,” Kelly said.
There are similar products in the marketplace now, Kelly noted.
For instance, you can buy an on-board diagnostic device from an auto parts store, and there are plenty of check-in and geolocation apps that tell you where your friends are, as well as websites that tell you when your car typically suffers which malfunctions.
There are also systems for fleets of delivery or laundry trucks, Kelly said, and there are some startups like Zubie aiming to deliver the “connected car.”
But Zubie brings it all together, he said.
The company has six patent applications being developed that would cover, among other things, how it collects and stores information and boasts of a “data partner that has been in this code-reading business for 15-plus years.”
Kelly wouldn’t identify that company but said its huge collection of car data provides the basis for the prospective reports Zubie will offer to drivers.
“We can give them a report that says over the next year, we estimate it’s going to cost you $1,200 to maintain this car,” he said.
Kelly said just “a tiny fraction” of the roughly 200 million cars on the road today, generally luxury vehicles, are “connected.” But even those that are, like the Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Jeep in his garage, face an obstacle.
“None of those talk to each other,” Kelly said. “Something like Zubie that can look across different vehicles.”
And it’s that combination of flexible and useful features that he hopes will spark the interest of the average car owner and maybe allow Zubie to share that information with other companies or even advertisers.
Kelly said getting the privacy components of Zubie’s opt-in system right “is absolutely critical and they have to be handled elegantly for this to work.”
Attracting people with the convenience and then selling them on the benefits of sharing is key to Zubie’s strategy.
Zubie will give away the app for free and then charge $99 per year for the deeper analytics. But if it can get paying customers to also give away information about their driving habits in exchange for savings or other incentives, then the Zubie can make money from several sources.
Insurers are also interested in the data so they can reward good drivers who volunteer their information. Undoubtedly there would be ways they could make money off the aggregate data, too, but Kelly emphasized his system’s privacy protocol.
“There’s no ability for them to get access to information the customer has not allowed them to get,” he said.
Kelly can see one day insurers bidding for safe-driving customers through Zubie or subsidizing the service for policyholders.
Dealerships could use the data to better gauge the value of the used cars they’re buying and selling. Or car owners who take good care of their vehicles could share the information to create a sort of “make me an offer” feature, which would give a suggested dollar-value based on an autmobile’s cumulative usage. As Kelly explains, a 2002 Chevy that’s been driven like a getaway car is worth a lot less than one that has been driven only to and from church for the past five years. But that might not be immediately evident without the driving history data.
Kelly said if the platform became successful enough, he could sell ads, say to Valvoline, that would appear when a driver’s low oil indicator lit up.
As the product rolls out, Kelly plans to eventually add staff to his 11-member team in the areas of marketing, sales and maybe engineering, like mobile software development. Angelino, the marketing executive, said they’re looking to move next year into office space on the peninsula, perhaps on Upper King Street. Kelly cited Charleston’s livability and flowering technology scene.
“This is where we plan to grow and build the company,” Kelly said.
It’s not hard to imagine how the Zubie system could transform car ownership and driving if it caught on.
But even though some people like new technology, millions more are set in their ways.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.